Go West, Young Man

A pioneer novel

An organization of gays and lesbians in publishing recently compiled a list of the 100 greatest gay novels of all time, with Thomas Mann's Death in Venice taking first place. Like Mann's exploration of pedophilia, many novels made the list thanks to homoerotic subtexts rather than loud and proud characters or plot lines. As in the case of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, some attained their position simply by affiliation with a queer author. Those who constructed this alternative canon claimed they did so in protest of the tower of books by predominantly straight white males that has loomed over college literature classes for most of this century. Frontiers

by Michael Jensen (Pocket Books, $24) Chances are Michael Jensen's Frontiers would be snubbed if this list were ever revised. This novel lacks Oscar Wilde's wit and Dorothy Allison's gritty realism, yet it challenges the canon of the Great and Straight American Novel more directly than could any organization picking winners based on whom they slept with. And it does so not by attempting to become a part of history but by repossessing it. Jensen transports us to Pennsylvania's Allegheny Plateau, where John Chapman flees in 1797 to escape persecution after having sex with a British soldier. As he goes from frightened outcast to hard-working boarder to hopeful settler, Chapman encounters a drunken beast of an Irish boyfriend by the name of Daniel McQuay; Gwennie, a resourceful Native American woman; the cocky yet amorous young Palmer; and others. Chapman attempts to swap his almost Christlike sensitivity for the callousness expected of a pioneer on a patriarchal frontier as he flees an attraction to men and an alcoholic father. Jensen tweaks the traditional Western genre gracefully, so that instead of emerging with a fresh persona on virgin soil, Chapman embraces his original sensibilities and sexuality on familiar land well-earned through the many trials he has endured. From instructions on severing an elk's tongue to the golden shade of kwenaskat grass, Jensen makes Frontiers a pleasure to read by displaying tidbits of historical and practical knowledge like so many strategically placed nuggets. Despite its occasional dips into mediocrity (Jensen has a tendency to resort to 20th-century lingo, such as "felt bad" and "boner"), Frontiers' biggest strength comes from its earnestness in rewriting and reinterpreting history. Jensen illustrates that one of the nightmares of the American Dream comes from the repercussions of moving west without any consideration of consequences. Chapman can't cope with his homosexuality, so he moves west both literally and psychologically, denying that he will eventually have to face reality. Pioneers in this novel move west with the Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, ignoring the detrimental effects they will have on Native Americans. When Chapman realizes and corrects the fact that "Running away was always the best I could do," he identifies the pitfalls of pioneerism in an expanding society that possesses able bodies and minds, but ultimately lacks compassion: "I didn't deserve the scorn and calumny that had been heaped on me all of my life. What I deserved was what I'd felt with Palmer that night on top of the mountain." Frontiers may never be defined as a literary giant like The Picture of Dorian Gray or Little Women, thanks to its flirtations with lowbrow genres and a Hollywood-esque ending. It will probably fail to join the niche of other Western and romance paperbacks snuggled up next to one another on rotating racks across America, due to a higher dose of self-reflection than entertainment, not to mention a queer protagonist. But maybe through its misfit status this novel and its protagonist have one up on both parties. Instead of searching history for closeted authors to celebrate, or adopting formulaic genres to perpetuate the myth of the patriarchal pioneer, Frontiers and its self-enlightened John Chapman step outside structures of the past to look forward to the future.

 
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